The fashion industry is at a crucial turning point, driven by increasing environmental awareness and the need for low-carbon alternatives to meet consumer demands. According to a survey by Bain, 15% of fashion consumers worldwide already prioritize sustainability, and this number is predicted to surpass 50%, as more shoppers embrace sustainable practices in the fashion industry.
Meanwhile, a study by the non-profit Textile Exchange showed that the fashion industry is using more raw materials than ever before. Global fiber production reached an all-time high of 113M tonnes in 2021 and is expected to grow to 149M tonnes by 2030 (for reference, it is the equivalent of 50,389 Empire State Buildings). The production of 149M tonnes of fibers can emit approximately 10-30 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions, let alone other negative environmental impacts on water, pesticide and land use.
Among different alternatives proposed for more sustainable and low-carbon fiber production, natural fibers can be considered a promising option.
What are natural fibers? They are simply fibers produced by natural processes, from the bodies of plants or animals. Some examples are flax, wool, banana, cotton, asbestos, jute, etc. The opposite of natural-plant fibers is synthetic fibers made from raw materials such as petroleum, [based on chemicals or petrochemicals](https://www.
sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/B9780081021316000086). Some examples are polyester, nylon, and spandex.
Indeed, depending on different farming techniques and manufacturing processes, natural fibers are not without negative environmental impacts. Yet, something that does not have environmental impacts simply does not exist.
Different types of natural fibers (Source)
Generally speaking, unlike synthetic fibers, natural fibers are renewable, highly biodegradable, and generally required low energy consumption during their processing. Below is a quick comparison of different environmental impacts between natural fibers with synthetic fibers:
A comparison of synthetic fibers and natural fibers
Indeed, not all natural fibers are equal in terms of environmental impacts. Cotton accounts for 24% of global fiber production and can have negative environmental impacts due to land, water, and chemical requirements. However, organic cotton can reduce these impacts compared to conventional cotton. For example, organic cotton uses 0 toxic pesticides, while 25% of all pesticides used worldwide are used on conventional cotton.
Hemp, on the other hand, requires much less energy, water, and fertilizers to grow than cotton. Its cultivation takes about 77.63% less cost in fertilization, seeds, field operation, and irrigation costs than cotton.
Beyond environmental benefits, natural fibers also excel in versatility and performance. They can be used in diverse clothing items, from summer dresses to winter sweaters; while offering exceptional comfort due to their breathability.
Natural fibers are also known for their strength and resilience, allowing garments to withstand everyday wear and tear. This durability benefits the consumer by reducing the need for frequent replacements.
As the demand for sustainable clothing grows, scaling up natural fiber production becomes crucial.
There is indeed a growing demand for natural fibers. The global natural fibers market size grew from $66 billion in 2022 to $70 billion in 2023 at a compound annual growth rate of 5.3%. The market is expected to grow to $85 billion by 2027.
In 2022, Asia-Pacific was the largest region in the natural fibers market, while North America is expected to be the fastest-growing region by 2027.
Cotton is still the most widely produced natural fiber, with India and China contributing around 50% of the world’s production, followed by the United States and Brazil. Regarding jute, Bangladesh and India lead the chart, with Bangladesh producing 58% of global production. As for greasy wool, the top producers are from China, Australia, and New Zealand. Regarding coir (coconut’s fibers), the major producers are from India and Sri Lanka - they account for 90% of the total global coir fiber production.
Total world production of Natural Fibers in 2018 (Source)
As natural fibers supply is mostly from the Global South, while demand is currently from Europe and North America, the question of an optimized supply chain is crucial. There are several levers to make it happen, as follows:
Indeed, transforming the supply chain of a whole industry is a long-term process that requires cooperation between various stakeholders - farmers, manufacturers, NGOs, and customers.
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